Study: TV diversity resonated with US pandemic audiences

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The latest UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report reveals that US television viewers during the Covid-19 pandemic leaned into content that came out of diverse writers rooms and that featured diverse casts.

“We have seen this appetite for diverse content repeated over the history of our analyses,” said Darnell Hunt, co-author of the report and UCLA’s dean of social sciences. “The fact that shows with diverse writers rooms did well last year also illustrates that audiences are looking for authentic portrayals.”

The report, which covers statistics for the 2019–20 TV season, tracks racial and gender diversity among key job categories, as well as ratings and social media engagement for 461 scripted shows across 50 broadcast, cable and streaming providers.

The new study found a continued correlation between the racial makeup of shows’ writers and TV ratings. For example, among households of all races in 2019–20, the scripted broadcast shows that earned the highest ratings were those in which people of colour made up between 31 per cent and 40 per cent of the credited writers.

Overall, racial diversity improved in almost every job category tracked by the report, and representation among women improved in about half of the job titles.

And for the first time in the report’s history, people of colour had a higher percentage of scripted broadcast TV acting roles, 43.4 per cent, than their overall percentage of the U.S. population.

Across all three platform types, there were more people of colour credited as writers than in the previous report. Overall, people of colour made up 26.4 per cent of the credited writers for broadcast series last season (up from 23.4 per cent), 28.6 per cent of credited writers for cable (up from 25.8 per cent) and 24.2 per cent of credited writers for streaming (up from 22.8 per cent). Most of those modest gains were recorded by women, according to the study.

But people of colour are still largely underrepresented among TV writers, given that 42.7 per cent of Americans are non-white.

Lagging representation among Latino actors, directors

Latino representation in all job categories remained flat from the previous year, and Latinos hold far fewer TV jobs than their share of the US population overall would predict. Latino actors held just 6.3 per cent of broadcast TV roles, 5.7 per cent in cable and 5.5 per cent in streaming. Meanwhile, Latino directors were responsible for only 5.4 per cent of broadcast TV episodes, 3.5 per cent of cable episodes and 3.0 per cent of streaming episodes.

“This UCLA report clearly demonstrates that more work is necessary to achieve more accurate representation and truly authentic portrayals in American television,” said US Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas. ”I hope this report encourages entertainment executives to re-evaluate their systems for recruiting, retaining, and promoting Latinx talent, work in earnest to make changes, and create a more inclusive culture.”

According to the report, a significant proportion of 2019–20 TV content — 35 per cent of broadcast shows, 22.9 per cent of cable and 25.7 per cent of streaming — was made in Los Angeles, where census data shows that 48.6 per cent of the population is Hispanic or Latino.

“Diversifying the workforce means bringing equity to the economy and ensuring inclusionary practices in Hollywood,” said California State Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo. “As Latinos make up the largest population in the state of California, yet only a dismal percentage in Hollywood, I’m looking forward to ensuring the Latinx community is not subsidizing its own exclusion via California’s Film Tax Credit Program, which the legislature oversees.”

The Hollywood Diversity Report recently received funding from the state of California that will enable UCLA researchers to continue to support such progress.

Diversity in acting

Over the decade since the Hollywood Diversity Report began, diversity has improved the most among acting jobs, especially in TV, compared with all other TV and movie job types. In 2019–20, television shows with majority-non-white casts were more prevalent than ever.

For the first time since the researchers began tracking data, a plurality of shows on cable (28.1 per cent) and streaming platforms (26.8 per cent) featured casts in which the majority of actors were non-white. And 32.1 per cent of broadcast shows had majority-non-white casts, up from just 2.0 per cent in the first report, which covered the 2011–12 season.

The new report provides further support for the fact that audiences favour shows with diverse casts. During 2019–20, among white households, ratings for scripted broadcast shows were highest for shows whose actors were 31 per cent to 40 per cent non-white. Among Black households, scripted broadcast shows with the highest ratings where those in which casts were more than 50 per cent non-white.

For streaming programming, which is dominated by Netflix, ratings among white, Black and Asian households were highest for shows with casts that were from 31 per cent to 40 per cent non-white.

The report’s authors also analyse audiences’ interaction with TV programmes on social media, and how those trends correspond with cast diversity. For scripted cable shows during 2019–20, for example, they found that programmes with majority non-white casts had the highest engagement on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And for streaming shows, audience engagement on Twitter specifically was highest for programmes with majority non-white casts.

Mixed progress among show creators

Another area in which diversity improved was among show creators. That’s an important datapoint because show creators have influence over which stories are developed, whose stories they represent and how they’re told, said Ana-Christina Ramón, co-author of the report and the director of research and civic engagement in the UCLA Division of Social Sciences.

Women made up 29.0 per cent of the creators of scripted cable shows, up nearly 7 percentage points over the prior season, marking the largest one-year gain for women in that job category since the report began. And people of colour made up 20.6 per cent of scripted cable show creators in 2019–20, up from 14.5 per cent the previous season and nearly triple the share (7.4 per cent) from 2011–12.

However, women held creator positions for fewer broadcast shows in 2019–20 (24.1 per cent) than they did the prior year (28.1 per cent) — and even fewer than women held in 2011–12 (26.5 per cent).

“We also see that when women and people of colour hold high-level creative positions, there is greater diversity down the line in casting and likely for crew hiring,” Ramón said. “Women and people of colour are still very underrepresented in these and other behind-the-camera jobs, which is why this report continues to exist.”

Other takeaways:

  • The number of acting roles for women in 2019–20 was nearly equal to those of men across all three platform types. Women made up 46.3 per cent of total cast in scripted broadcast shows, 45.3 per cent in cable and 46.9 per cent in streaming.
  • Trans and nonbinary actors were virtually absent across all platforms.
  • Out of a total 2,932 credited actors, just 13 were Native people, including just three Native women.
  • People of colour directed 25.8 per cent of broadcast episodes, 27.2 per cent of cable and 21.4 per cent of streaming, up from 24.3 per cent and, 22.9 per cent and 18.2 per cent in the 2018–19 season.
  • Women directed 30.6 per cent of broadcast episodes, 31.3 per cent of cable and 33.4 per cent of streaming, up from 29.3 per cent, 29.7 per cent and 29.1 per cent the prior season.

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